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Trust: Observation and Commentary

Last week, I said I would tell you all about the time I had visiting Kinkakuji with the rest of the Doshisha Women's College exchange students and a few of our Japanese peers. That's all fine and good (and I had an excellent time) but there's something that's been on my mind for the past few days - the way people treat each other.

You could frankly ask anyone, they'll tell you Japanese people are known for politeness. It's never a good idea to generalize - but this is one of the more "accurate" stereotypes I know of. It's embedded into daily life; respect is a crop cultivated from hundreds of years of culture. One needs only to observe with a thoughtful mind to see instances of this.

Allow me to elaborate on some of what I think are the more notable - yet subtle - ways that Japanese people treat one another.

Bicycles are one of the most popular modes of transport here. Thus, bikes are seen everywhere. In fact, there are multiple bike "parking lots" on my campus. And yet, I have rarely seen a bike rack. Why? Because Japan seems to often have no use for them. To an American eye, it appears that bike owners park with reckless abandon. No chain or locks anywhere - and no other security system from what I can tell. (I have seen a "secured" bike rack by the entrance of a busy subway station that operated in the same way as a coin locker in an amusement park.) The occasional personal item is found in the font basket.

A child - not more than 7 or 8 - stands in his elementary school uniform. His bus pass attached to the strap of his backpack with a spiral cord and keychain. On the top flap of the bag there's a protective plastic cover to shield his books from the rain. On the side dangles an omamori (a protective charm purchased at shrines and temples) - no doubt fastened there by his doting parents. This was the way I found this boy one day while we waited for the same bus. But, where were his parents? Nowhere to be found. Why would they need to be? He knows the route back home like the back of his hand, and he knows how to be safe. Besides, his parents have faith that nothing bad will happen - no one is going to hurt him and anyone will help him should he need it.

A Japanese department store has to be one of the most confusing places I've been too. I'm not talking about the American idea of a department store where it's one company selling a variety of goods, like a Walmart. They have those as well, but the kind I'm talking about are many different companies sharing the same building. But unlike a mall, no walls separate the stores - it's completely open. The stores are organized by the kind of product they sell. This makes it extremely difficult to see where one store ends and the next begins. Employees are not concerned that you'll take something and walk off, though with the way the places are designed it's entirely possible. Why? Because they know you won't. They trust that, if you make the mistake of walking away with their merchandise, you'll come back to pay for it. I should know - I've endured the embarrassing experience twice now.

On roads in residential areas - or that just aren't part of the main pathway for cars - there often is no sidewalk. Roads tend to be (especially these ones) very narrow. There's just barely enough room for two cars to pass each other. So, cars drive in the center of the road until another car comes from the opposite side. And while is common knowledge here that you walk on the side of the road where you face oncoming traffic, people seem to just walk on the side that pleases them. Why? Drivers trust other drivers to go slowly and with caution. Pedestrians trust the drivers to watch out for them, and the drivers trust pedestrians not to walk in front as they pass.

I wish we could have this kind of trust back home in America. Alas, that seems to be an impossible dream, especially with the political turmoil at the present time. But, I think there's one important lesson we can take from all this - assume good intentions. Even if someone has done something wrong, trust that they meant you no harm until they have proven to you otherwise.

The other day in class we learned about one of the words used to say "humanity." Ninjou includes the ideogram for "sympathy, emotion, kindness." I'll let that speak for itself.


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